Is Linux Losing Ground in the Netbook Market?

The Asus EeePC is a thing of wonder. I got myself the first version the week it came out. It was an EeePC 701, with a paltry 4GB of storage, 512MB RAM and a seven-inch screen. But it was small, and it could fit my camera bag, and thus I could do work virtually anywhere without having to kill my back carrying a full-sized laptop.

The original EeePC also came shipped with Linux (Xandros, in the case of Asus), and that added to the novelty of it. Linux enthusiasts were banking on the popularity of Linux-based netbooks, which could supposedly bring Linux closer to the common user (a.k.a. the 90+ percent of us who use Windows).

A lot of things had happened since then. A ton of other manufacturers have come out with their own netbooks. Most of these other brands ship their units with Linux pre-installed. Acer Aspire one has Linpus lite. The HP mini note had SUSE. Dell has an Ubuntu variant. And so forth. However, how big really is the effect of the netbook on the desktop (meaning non-server) market share of Linux? Has Linux gained a foothold on the mainstream market with the popularity of netbooks?

The netbook market was thought to make Linux an attractive option, given the limited resources and lower price. And because users buy netbooks mostly for light tasks that run on web browsers, it was thought that the choice of OS would not be a big issue. However, recent news says that this may not exactly be the case. According to MSI (as featured on LaptopMag), WIND netbooks preloaded with Linux had been returned four times more than those that came with Windows.

Our internal research has shown that the return of netbooks is higher than regular notebooks, but the main cause of that is Linux. People would love to pay $299 or $399 but they don’t know what they get until they open the box. They start playing around with Linux and start realizing that it’s not what they are used to. They don’t want to spend time to learn it so they bring it back to the store. The return rate is at least four times higher for Linux netbooks than Windows XP netbooks.

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LaptopMag went on to interview folks from Canonical (which publishes Ubuntu) and Canonical confirms this.

Well, when we touched base today with Gerry Carr, marketing manager at Canonical (the creator of the Ubuntu operating system) we learned that MSI’s research extends beyond its own products. See his comments below, but it seems Linux’ future on the netbook is bleaker than we thought.

“We don’t know what the XP return rates are. But I will say that the return rate is above normal for netbooks that offer open-source operating systems,” Carr echoed. Carr highlighted a few reasons why Ubuntu-running netbooks are returned more often. “Unclear selling is happening, typically online. The customer will get their netbook sent to their home and they imagine to find something like a Microsoft desktop, but they see a brown Ubuntu version. They are unwilling to learn it and they were expecting to have Windows.”

Has Microsoft gained the upper hand in this game? Windows XP was supposed to have been rendered obsolete last June, but Microsoft changed its mind, and decided to continue selling and supporting XP, but only bundled with low-cost and low-powered PCs, which is essentially the netbook market.

That definition includes a screen that’s less than 10.2 inches, 1GB of RAM or less, a hard drive with 80GB or less, and no touchscreen devices. You’ll also need a 1GHz or slower processor, although Via’s C7-M processors which run up to 1.6GHz are allowed, as will be Intel’s new Atom processor.

As for me, since my 701, I’ve bought two netbooks–the EeePC 900 and an HP mini note, both of which were Windows variants. The 900 came bundled with XP, and the mini note with Vista Business (since downgraded to XP). I do consider myself an advanced user, and I’m very much a multi-platform individual (running OS X, Windows and Linux on my various computers). But on my netbooks, I find it easier to maintain the same OS, and all my work tools run fine on Windows on these netbooks, too.

From what I’ve been reading in forums (such as the Eeeuser forums, which is a really great resource for Eee enthusiasts), some users buy Linux-preloaded netbooks and install Windows XP anyway.

Force of habit, maybe? Or really just out of convenience, perhaps (no Evernote or Nokia PC suite on Linux!)?

What could really help Linux gain a stronger foothold on the consumer market, then?

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